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Shipwreck Carrying Remains of Chinese Gold Miners Found

Wreckage found off New Zealand coast after 112 years

By MarEx 2014-11-19 09:55:00

The wreck of the SS Ventnor, which sank off the New Zealand coast in 1902 carrying the remains of 499 Chinese gold miners who had worked in Otago, has at last been found.

“Last year, after almost three years of searching, the Ventnor Project Group, supported by Definitive Productions, found what we believed to be the SS Ventnor, which went missing more than 112 years ago off the coast of the Hokianga, on its way to China,” said John Albert, chairman of the group.

“Following our discovery, we enlisted the services of the internationally respected expert, former president of The NZ Underwater Heritage Association and acclaimed author Keith Gordon, to carry out the relevant testing and research. He was able to confirm our findings.”

Authorities in both China and New Zealand have been duly notified and the find has now been gazetted by Heritage NZ. This means no items may be removed from the wreck without permission.

The wreck lies in about 150 meters of water, 21km due west of Hokianga harbor.

“Finding the SS Ventnor highlights the significant ties between China and New Zealand,” said Mr Albert. “It is important historically in terms of the early Chinese contribution to New Zealand and culturally in terms of the shared attitudes towards human remains. Since the time of the shipwreck, remains have drifted to shore. These have been interred and their graves cared for by local Maori.”

In view of the current visit to New Zealand by the president of China, President Xi JinPing, one of the kaumatua (elders) of the Hokianga iwi (tribe), John Klaracich, CNZM, QSO, extended an invitation to the Chinese leadership to visit Hokianga next time they are in New Zealand.

“We would like to give representatives of China the opportunity to personally visit the graves of their countrymen on land and at sea, and pay respects to those pioneers who had not only helped to build our country materially, but who brought their rich and ancient culture to our land as well,” said Mr Klaracich.

The SS Ventnor was a British ship, chartered in 1902 by the Cheong Sing Tong, a charity organisation led by Dunedin businessman Choie Sew Hoy, to transport the exhumed remains of Chinese men who had died in New Zealand back to their homeland for reburial.

These men had come to New Zealand to work on the gold fields and the towns that sprung up around it. The first Chinese gold miners arrived in New Zealand in 1866 and three years later there were more than 2,000 of them, mostly migrants from the area near Guangzhou. By 1881, there were 5,000 Chinese in New Zealand – a total that would only be exceeded after World War Two.

As these men died, they were buried in New Zealand. However, their culture demanded that their graves be tended by family members, so the decision was made to return the remains to China. The SS Ventnor shipment represented the second time such an undertaking took place, with the remains of 230 Chinese already having been repatriated in similar fashion in 1883.

Ironically, Mr Sew Hoy himself died before the SS Ventnor could depart, and his remains where added to the shipment.

The SS Ventnor picked up the remains – mostly in lead-lined coffins – in Dunedin, Greymouth and Wellington. The ship also carried 6,400 tonnes of coal when it left Wellington bound for Hong Kong on 26 October 1902. The next day, it struck a reef on the Taranaki coast. The captain decided to round North Cape and sail the stricken ship to Auckland. However, the 3,961 ton vessel sank off Hokianga on the northeast coast of the North Island on 28 October 1902 with the loss of 13 lives, including the captain.

While human remains and occasional flotsam washed up on Hokianga beaches, the location of the wreck had remained a mystery for more than a century.